In the final weeks of the 1892 presidential race between Republican President Benjamin Harrison and Democratic nominee Grover Cleveland, the writers and editors of the first Arabic-language newspaper in the United States, Kawkab America, had a business tip for the Syrians of New York City: invest in campaign buttons.
“Our countrymen should not ignore that there is an abundantly profitable trade in election season,” read a small news item in Arabic. “At times like these, Americans take small pieces of brass with the pictures of the presidential candidates . . . and sell them by the millions to party members.”
“The more partisanship and division, the better the trade,” the authors continued. “There is no small profit in selling them.”
Weeks later, Abraham Rihbany, the Arabic literary editor of the fledgling newspaper, joined an “immense crowd” outside the “great daily papers” of the city—he did not name which—watching the election returns. Rihbany, who a year earlier had arrived in the United States from the Levant “with nine cents,” was a Republican, but he wasn’t quite sure why. “In so far as I can remember,” he later wrote in his 1914 autobiography, A Far Journey, “I simply woke up to the inaccountable fact that I was an adherent of the ‘Grand Old Party.’”
He watched as pictures of Harrison and Cleveland advanced up ladders hung out of the top story of a newspaper office—each rung representing one of the then-44 states. Soon, the result became clear: a decisive win for Cleveland. Rihbany “concluded that the country was doomed.”
At the time of the 1892 election, Kawkab America (or Star of America, as the proprietors translated its name) was just seven months old. The newcomer to New York’s newspaper scene was published out of the top floor of a four-story brick building at 45 Pearl Street in Lower Manhattan, a street filled with traders and importers. Kawkab’s core readers were the residents of Little Syria, or the “Syrian Colony,” a community clustered between Battery Park and Rector Street, and particularly on Washington Street, a mere ten-minute walk away from the newspaper offices to the north and west.
The paper was only the first of more than 50 US-based Arabic publications affiliated with Little Syria, which soon became a global literary and cultural center for the greater Syrian diaspora coming from what today is both Syria and Lebanon but was then part of the Ottoman Empire. In Lower Manhattan, Ameen Rihani became the first Arab-American to write a novel in English. Later, Khalil Gibran wrote The Prophet.
Kawkab claimed (likely hyperbolically) that its coverage reached more than 150,000 Syrians in North and South America and beyond—at the time mostly Christians who left home to escape starvation and violence or in search of economic opportunity. The year it was established, the newspaper put the number of Arabic speakers in the United States at 80,000. Independent scholar Linda K. Jacobs, a descendant of early members of the colony, said estimates of Little Syria’s population “varied widely,” but that the total population “at any one time probably never exceeded 1,500.”
The building at 45 Pearl Street where Kawkab America was born sat on a block as old as the city itself. In the block’s first 250 years, before the Syrians arrived in the late 1800s, it housed early New Amsterdam settlers, the city’s first church, a state senator and a series of merchants and business offices.
Many Syrians who settled near Washington Street remained in Lower Manhattan until the 1950s, when the city razed Little Syria to make way for the Battery Park Tunnel. By then, Kawkab was long gone—it ceased publication around 1910—and 45 Pearl was part of a new plot with the address 100 Broad, home to a Jacobean brick building owned by the Bush Terminal Company. Later that building would be sold to the New York Clearing House Association, torn down, and rebuilt in a blocky modern image.
But for a period of 18 years in Gilded Age New York, the paper aimed to guide recent arrivals who were finding their way in a new land while grappling with broader society’s view of them as exotic, alien outsiders. In its first edition, published April 15, 1892, the paper described its goal as “bringing its eastern and western readers into closer and more intimate relations.” To that end, the first page of the four-page weekly was initially printed in English, with the remaining three reserved for Arabic. A year later, the editors removed the English page.
The story of Little Syria and the first paper that spoke to its residents complicates simplistic narratives of what it means to be an American, and in what language that can be articulated. It also illuminates a community with deep roots in this city and country, despite repeated government efforts to limit immigration since the 19th century.
By most contemporary and historical accounts, the founding proprietors of Kawkab America were two Syrian-American brothers, Nageeb Arbeely and Abraham Arbeely, alongside Arteen Petrakian, all of whom both lived and worked in the offices at 45 Pearl. After six months, Petrakian fell out with the brothers, sued them, and lost. Rihbany joined the paper as literary editor after Petrakian’s departure.
The inaugural April 1892 issue included an English article about “molestations and persecutions” of Syrians by “a certain class of ruffians infesting the neighborhood of lower Washington and Greenwich sts.” The writer called on local authorities to intervene, suggesting that a lack of response showed the newcomers “do not yet enjoy the protection which they should.”
“The Syrians,” the unnamed writer said, “are a hospitable and friendly class of people, law-abiding and peaceful, especially when dwelling among strangers, and in a strange land.”
By the time Kawkab launched, the Arbeely brothers had been in the United States for nearly 15 years. They arrived in 1878 with their family to a wave of press coverage of the “first Syrian immigrant family” in the United States. Whether this was true or not, it did spark a fascination with the Arbeelys. The family moved around—to Tennessee, Texas, and beyond—while Nageeb Arbeely even had a short-lived and ill-fated appointment in 1885 as US Consul to Jerusalem (the Ottoman Empire refused to accept his credentials as US Consul because it still considered him an Ottoman citizen).
A few months after Kawkab launched, a reporter for the New-York Daily Tribune took a walk through Little Syria and visited its offices at 45 Pearl. The excursion resulted in a nearly full-page illustrated spread published Oct. 2, 1892. For the Tribune reporter, Little Syria and its residents were above all a curiosity, “a riot of the beautiful and the odd.”
On Washington Street, he found “old, weather-beaten, dingy and sometimes dirty” houses, alongside restaurants where
Coffee of the consistency of mud, but delightful to the taste, is served in tiny cups, and the long, flexible stemmed narghiles, or “hubble-bubbles,” all ready for smoking, are in constant demand . . . while the soft flowing language of the talkers, the bubble of the water in the narghilehs, the rattle of dice and the click of the pieces as they are moved around.
The Kawkab offices themselves were “a delight,” the reporter wrote, noting divans arranged in the editorial office, these likely the beds upon which Nageeb, his brother and Rihbany, slept. Cages holding canaries and a parrot sat by the windows, “oriental rugs are on the floor, and the walls are covered with curios from Syria, and other Bible lands.” Kawkab’s writers described the decor in similar terms, as “a profusion of silk draperies, portieres and kefiehs, fresh from the looms and Bazars [sic] of Damascus, Busrah, and Aleppo.”
The Tribune reporter took particular note of the composing room and Arabic typesetting materials, “nearly 1,300 different characters and combinations” set by “Joseph E. Hage” (a twisted rendering of the name Yusef el-Hajj), “the only expert Syrian compositor in the United States.” Perhaps the difficulty of Arabic typesetting led to staff turnover. In August 1893, The New York Evening World reported a “furious storm” blew a chimney down, sending bricks raining down on 45 Pearl Street. “Several broke through the skylight and fell into the composing rooms,” injuring the compositor, by then no longer Yusef el-Hajj, but one “Siede Jureydint.”
Summing up, the Tribune reporter said the Syrians of New York were “sober and industrious people,” but also “members of an alien race . . . who wear baggy trousers and smoke pipes with six feet of stem and a quart of water in the bowl . . . who read and write backward when they read and write at all.”
The staff of Kawkab was pleased with the Tribune coverage, however, writing in English that the paper was “glad to notice that the American press begins to give the Syrians due consideration and just representation.”
During Kawkab America’s 18-year run from 1892 to 191o, the paper covered everything from cholera outbreaks to business opportunities, anti-Syrian sentiment in the city to an anti-semitic riot in Poland, debates about Christian missionaries in Syria to write-ups of New York’s history in Arabic. Literary essays, anecdotes, and advertisements filled its pages. It became a daily in 1898.
Rihbany did not last long as the paper’s literary editor. His early enthusiasm for the job—and the prestige he imagined it would bring—waned, he recalled in his memoir. Following a promising first impression at a launch party where “eloquence flowed no less copiously than beer and arak,” he bristled as the work grew “harder and less dignified.”
“I was required to keep the accounts,” he said, “to look after the list of subscribers, attend to a large part of the business correspondence, solicit advertisements, do the work of a reporter, and even help fold the papers and prepare them for the mail, besides editing every item which went into the paper.” He also had to translate news items from English to Arabic.
One of the Arbeelys fell out with the publisher, leading “one evening to a fist fight,” Rihbany recalled. Abraham Arbeely colonized the editorial room from time to time to see patients for his medical practice. Type-setter Yusuf el-Hajj moved in to the editorial office where Rihbany and the others slept, complaining of the chemical smells in the printing room.
“Discord ruled our office, and I concluded to seek new pastures outside New York,” wrote Rihbany. He did, and ultimately became a Protestant minister and theologian.
The paper lasted 17 years after Rihbany left it, by which point there were several other Arabic newspapers in the city. Even as the two Arbeely brothers ran the paper, they took up other occupations. Nageeb held many jobs, including an Ellis Island interpreter, a notary public, a dry goods merchant, and a lecturer, according to historian Linda Jacobs.
While working at the Ellis Island barge office in October 1900, Nageeb was “suddenly stricken with paralysis”—a stroke. A New York Tribune article about the event described him as someone who spoke many languages and “looks after the Oriental immigrants who arrive at this port.”At the time, the paper wrote, he was no longer living at the Kawkab office, but on Ocean Avenue in Brooklyn. The stroke ended his career at Ellis Island, and four years later he died of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was 43. His brother Abraham and Said Shoucair, by then the paper’s editor, continued the work until around 1910.
But long before Syrians would be described as the “alien race” on these shores, a different sort of newcomers landed on this island, come to lay claim to a land not theirs and plant the seeds for today’s metropolis. Those newcomers, too, found a place on Pearl Street.
When New York was still New Amsterdam, in the early days and years after the Dutch West India Company first sent settlers in 1622, Pearl Street was little more than a cow path along the waterfront, the Strand. At the time, 18 languages were spoken in the fledgling colonial city, and the majority of the residents, despite the settlement’s name, were not Dutch, according to a 1983 report for the Landmarks Preservation Commission by Cornell Professor Robert Venables.
Before Peter Stuyvesant became governor in 1664, “the pathways established by the Dutch went nameless,” Sanna Feirstein wrote in Naming New York: Manhattan Places & How They Got Their Names. Finally named for the oysters of the East River, the path that became Pearl would go by Dock Street, Customs House Street (the first customs house in the city was on Pearl), and Queen Street for several decades during British control of the city. Only after the Revolutionary War did it revert back to its original name.
In the early days of the city, “Pearl was the favorite locality for building, and was well lined with dwellings,” Martha Lamb wrote in her 1876 history of New York. She attributed this to Pearl’s position on the waterfront. Mayor Stephanus Van Cortlandt (who served for a sum of three years in two different stretches between 1677 and 1688), built a large home on the corner of Pearl and Broad, across the street from the triangular block that later housed the Kawkab America offices.
That chunk of city, block 10 in the first ward, is a wonky, narrow wedge bound by Pearl, Whitehall, Bridge and Broad Streets. In the earliest days of the city, Broad Street was a stinking canal, into which residents habitually threw “rubbish, filth, ashes, dead animals, and such like things.” This use of the canal (and the streets) as a place for refuse prompted a 1657 ordinance that “all such things” be placed in a handful of locations, including near the nearby gallows.
Along with Manhattan’s first church, built around 1633, Block 10—as part of the early nucleus of the city—was also home to Manhattan’s first pharmacy (the residence of Dr. Hans Kiersted at 25 Pearl), and Obadiah Hunt’s tavern at 33-35 Pearl. Hunt’s pub was a gathering place for politicians, according to a 1983 historical study prepared for Fox & Fowle Architects, the firm that designed the Broad Financial Center that today occupies the westernmost portion of the block.
A man named Pieter Lourenssen held the first deed to 45 Pearl in 1647. He in turn passed a portion of his land to Hendrick Jansen, who kept a “not too orderly” tavern on the property for a time (according to the 1983 report and Isaac Newton Phelps Stokes’ six-volume history, The Iconography of Manhattan Island). But before too long, he fell into debt and hung himself. Next door lived Samuel Edsall (or Edsal, or Edsel), a hatter. His house sat at what would become 47 Pearl, a plot of land abutting the large West India Company Pach Huys, or warehouse.
Edsall’s daughter, Judith (or Julia) married Capt. Benjamin Blagge, a British mariner who “sailed his vessels between New York and English ports for many years, and made New York his home after his marriage,” as described in the 1808 The New York Genealogical and Biographical Record. In 1686, Blagge purchased the house at 45 Pearl Street, next to his wife’s childhood residence. Nearly a quarter of a century later, in 1710, Blagge sold the property to a cooper, who later sold it to a merchant. As time went on, the block changed from a residential neighborhood to a site of commerce, with most properties serving as warehouses or stores.
From 1725-44, in a print shop at 81 Pearl, just a two-minute walk away from where the Arbeelys would set up shop 167 years later, William Bradford printed the city’s first paper, The New-York Gazette. Bradford’s two-page publication contained mostly foreign news, with little discussion of local events.
In 1837, Edwin D. Morgan of Hartford, Connecticut moved into 45 Pearl, where he cofounded the law firm of Morgan and Earle, according to the 1983 study. Morgan, a Whig-Republican, worked his way up the political ladder from his home on Pearl Street, advancing from assistant alderman in 1849 to state senator in 1850 and finally governor of New York State from 1859-62. A historian wrote about Morgan in 1906 that he was “a fine specimen of manhood” with “large, lustrous eyes inviting confidence.” Before his death in 1883, he served one term in the US Senate.
Could it be that whatever traces of himself Morgan left at 45 Pearl Street led the Syrian newspaper editor Rihbany to wake up one day, inexplicably, a Republican?
Through the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century—including Kawkab’s lifespan—the building, like the block around it, continued its turn towards trade. Up until the 1960s, the Manhattan Address Directory lists various importers, shipping agencies and customs brokers at 45 Pearl.
From 1908 to 1911, according to city records, Irving T. and Bella B. Bush bought up the lots comprising 39-53 Pearl Street. After those lots were consolidated into a single, new lot 1 and sold again, the existing brick structures were torn down in 1961, according to the Office for Metropolitan History. Work began on the New York Clearing House Building, a squat, two-story pizza slice of an office building, measuring 15,834 square feet and completed in February 1963.
Today, the patch of ground that was once 45 Pearl Street is home to a pay-by-the-pound buffet called Essen, German or Yiddish for “eat,” with an address at 100 Broadway, and which features a range of Asian foods. A plaque on the south side of the building commemorates the old church, but not Kawkab America.
Like the gradual disappearance of 45 Pearl as an address, Little Syria’s end came in waves. First, residents who could afford to do so fled the crowded tenements and the “lower part of the city” with its “congestion and noise,” as Kawkab described it, for the relative calm of Brooklyn’s Atlantic Avenue, Pacific Street, President Street.
Then came the immigration crackdown. In response to national security concerns during World War I, the US passed the 1917 act, the nation’s first broadly restrictive immigration law, which imposed a literacy test and higher tax on new immigrants, and completely banned anyone coming from the “Asiatic Barred Zone,” a wide swathe of Asia that did not include most of the Middle East. The targeted Chinese Exclusion Act had already banned Chinese immigrants in 1882.
Seven years later, the Immigration Act of 1924, signed by President Calvin Coolidge and known as the Johnson-Reed Act, limited immigration through a quota based on national origin. That is, two percent of the number of people of each nationality in the United States as of 1890. Because Syrians (and many other groups) were relative newcomers, the act, by design, hit them the hardest. Under the calculation, Syria’s yearly quota for immigration became 100 people. Germany’s, by contrast, was 51,227.
“We got the trash of the Mediterranean,” said David Reed, the Republican senator from Pennsylvania, in a debate on the Senate floor in June 1929, “all that Levantine stock that churns around through there and does not know what its ancestry is. It came here in large numbers from Syria and the Turkish provinces.”
In 1946, residents of Little Syria received eviction notices ahead of the construction of the Battery Park Tunnel, which tore their neighborhood apart. Today, three buildings remain: a church and two tenements. Even less remains of outposts like the address 45 Pearl, now a ghost in city archives and old newspaper articles.
But Lower Manhattan is full of ghosts. Despite it being the oldest part of the city, there is virtually nothing physically left of what it first was. From the 1835 fire that burned down most of what stood below Wall Street to the relentless cycles of destruction and reconstruction that have led us to today’s sleek glass buildings and smooth cement walls. All that remains is the street plan itself—the narrow, organic passages that make the tip of Manhattan Island feel old. It is for this reason that the physical layout of its streets was designated a historic landmark in 1983.
Back in July 1926, two years after the Johnson-Reed Immigration Act passed into law and 10 years after Kawkab’s end, the first issue of a new Syrian publication, The Syrian World appeared. It included a free-verse poem, “To Young Americans of Syrian Origin,” in which the author considered what it meant to be “a good citizen.”
“In part,” he wrote, “it is to stand before the towers of New York, Washington, Chicago and San Francisco saying in your heart, ‘I am the descendant of a people that builded [sic] Damascus, and Biblus, and Tyre and Sidon, and Antioch, and now I am here to build with you, and with a will.’” The piece was signed G. K. Gibran.